You, me and everyone we smell: Do new unisex scents mean the fragrance industry is finally embracing progress?

For the better part of the past century, the conventional wisdom — or at least that spouted by the fragrance industry — was that scents were inherently feminine or masculine. It’s a matter of simple biology, of course: the so-called finer sex favours fruits and florals, while manly men everywhere prefer the rugged scents of nature and strong spices.

But just like the age-old gender myth that girls fancy pink and boys blue, the idea that fragrances should be segregated by sex is ripe for a challenge. Take Moschino’s Toy, Lady Gaga’s Eau de Gaga and Pharrell’s Girl: all are among a crop of new scents designed for a unisex market.

“Many fragrances are moving away from gendered boundaries, and many of the of top sellers in our portfolio are presented to both men and women alike — including Creed, Frederic Malle, Acqua di Parma, By Kilian and Byredo,” says Wayne Peterson, Holt Renfrew’s division vice-president of cosmetics.

The trend is on point with the evolution of gender roles. Why can’t a woman relish the smell of musk and tobacco? Or a man wish to smell like a rose? “The fragrance world is reflecting a larger cultural shift,” Peterson says. 

“Fragrance has evolved, just like women’s and men’s roles in society. People are a lot more open-minded today,” says Jamie Petrovic, regional training executive for Elizabeth Arden, which owns the fragrance brands of Britney Spears, Juicy Couture, John Varvatos, Elizabeth Taylor, Halston, Taylor Swift and more. “Rather than worrying about whether a scent is labelled for men or women, consumers are more concerned about what notes suit their personality and work best on their skin.”

In addition to the recent popularity of unisex perfume, Petrovic also notices more women using “men’s” colognes and vice versa: “There are no rules in the fragrance world anymore.” It’s all about expressing your authentic self versus artificially squeezing into preordained categories.

The unisex fragrances hitting shelves today combine layers of woody and floral notes: Moschino’s Toy has tones of sandalwood and musk in the base and notes of lavender and hawthorn petals in the centre. Pharrell’s Girl includes notes of lavender, white pepper, iris, violet and cedar.

A writer for The Cut website seemed particularly thrown by this concept, though, in her recent review of Girl. “In [Pharrell’s] latest effort … he tries to smell like girls. Or have girls smell like girls. Or maybe have girls and boys smell like girls and boys. It’s a bit confusing,” she writes.

But Pharrell is by no means the first to create a gender-bending scent. The entire notion of gendered fragrances — distinct girl smells and boy smells — is a relatively modern and Western one. “We’ve been shaped to think a certain way about fragrances — what a man or woman should smell like,” Petrovic says.

In the Middle East, for example, it’s common for men in to wear rose-based fragrances. In India, both sexes choose scents with notes of jasmine, henna flowers and sandalwood. (For a historical context, both men and women in ancient Greece perfumed themselves with the scented oils of flowers, spices and fruits.)

“It wasn’t until the suffrage movement, when women started to work and could afford finer fragrances on their own, that marketers thought to give scents a more feminine tone,” says Marian Bendeth, a global fragrance expert and owner of the Toronto-based consulting company Six Scents.

Modern fragrance ads play into predictable, overused stereotypes: dominant men and objectified, sexualized women. Brands sell males fragrances that promise to exude power and females fragrances that pledge to seduce. But consumers are starting to look beyond the marketing and, well, just follow their noses.

A 2012 study by Anna Lindqvist in the Journal of Sensory Studies exposed a clear disconnect between how brands market fragrances by gender and how people actually react to them. She found blindfolded participants of both sexes tend to favour the same perfumes, and those fragrances tend to be neither stereotypically masculine nor feminine.

“Not all fragrance is to attract a partner, even though it’s marketed that way,” Bendeth says. “Your main concern should be how does it make you feel? Where does it take you?”

As consumers begin use fragrance to express themselves rather than claim membership in cookie-cutter gender roles, Bendeth says the notion of a “signature scent” is passé. “People don’t wear just one fragrance anymore; they have a wardrobe of fragrances.”

That wardrobe often includes scents that fall in a variety of places on the gender spectrum. What one wears to the offices isn’t necessarily what one wears to the movies or in bed with a partner. Just as we don’t yet live in a post-gender society, fragrances specific to men and women aren’t likely to disappear any time soon.

When I discussed Pharrell’s fragrance with a male friend, he bristled: “Pharell’s giant hat may have a lot of powers, but getting ‘dude bros’ to wear a scent called Girl isn’t one of them.”

What unisex scents do provide, though, is a third category in fragrance — one of the most intimate ways we can to express ourselves. “It’s all about choice,” Petrovic says. “Women don’t have to smell like delicate fruits anymore.”

This article originally appeared in the National Post.

Sabrina Maddeaux